Among auto manufacturers, Honda has always marched to the tune of a different drummer. More than 45 years ago when oil was $3 a barrel, it began working on fuel economy, keeping it out of step with competitors for a long time. While the industry rushed to build bigger and brawnier cars, SUVs and pickup trucks, Honda spurned developing a V8 engine and fervently focused on alternative fuel research.
Over the years, doing things the “Honda Way” has produced some remarkable achievements. The 1975 Civic CVCC was the first car to meet the U.S. Clean Air Act exhaust emissions standards without the use of a catalytic converter. In 1977, the Civic CVCC topped the EPA’s first-ever list of the most fuel-efficient cars in America with a fuel economy rating of 40 mpg. The company introduced the first production hybrid car in 1999, the two-seat Insight, and began leasing the first production fuel cell vehicle in 2008, the FCX Clarity.
Another accomplishment is the Civic GX (rebadged the Civic Natural Gas for 2012) introduced in 1998. It’s the only production compressed natural gas (CNG) powered car available in the U.S. If you haven’t heard of the GX it’s because Honda began quietly selling it first to government fleets, and then to California consumers in 2006. Later it dribbled into three other states, but for 2012 with the arrival of the ninth-generation Civic, Honda has expanded consumer availability to 37 states.
Unlike a hybrid car, the natural gas Civic isn’t about fuel economy – there are more than a dozen small cars that cost less and trump its 27 city/38 hwy/31 combined EPA rating – it’s about the warm fuzzy feeling that comes with a car that will emit less pollution over its lifetime than is produced by spilling a teaspoon of gasoline on the ground. By EPA analysis, it reduces nitrogen oxide emissions by 35 percent, hydrocarbon emissions by 50 percent and particulate matter emissions by 95 percent. For all practical purposes, it’s a zero-emissions car and the EPA has declared the engine “the cleanest internal combustion engine on Earth” every year since its introduction.
Additionally, there can be a smidge of smugness when owners fill up the tank of the Civic Natural Gas. The national average price of CNG is $2.13 per gasoline-gallon-equivalent (GGE). Oh, the car also qualifies for car pool lanes in California and a few other states.
The 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas has a starting price of $26,305. That’s $815 more than the outgoing model, but the 2012 edition offers the features of the mid-level LX model while last year the GX was basically a fleet vehicle with few amenities.
Under the hood of the 2012 Civic Natural Gas is one of only a few engines in the world built specifically for CNG. It’s a version of the 1.8-liter i-Vtec four-cylinder engine powering other Civic models – modified to regulate the higher temperatures and increased output of the hotter burning fuel. Changes include a CNG multi-port injection system, a pressure regulator and redesigned valves and valve seats that address CNG’s non-lubricating properties. Additionally, the compression ratio is increased from 10.6 to 12.7, requiring a stronger crankshaft, connecting rods and pistons to handle the additional stress. The result is, output decreases from 140 horsepower to 110 and torque declines from 128 pounds-feet to 106. Power is directed to the front wheels via a five-speed automatic transmission.
The CNG cylinder fuel tank is located in the trunk – reducing space by more than half to 6.0 cubic feet – and holds the gasoline-gallon-equivalent of 7.8 gallons of gasoline at 3600 psi. Refueling with CNG is a little different than gasoline, but it’s easy to learn. Simply latch the fuel filler nozzle onto the Civic’s filler and move a lever on the automated pump. The pump will display the percentage of fill; at 100 percent, remove the nozzle. While refueling may be a simple task, keep in mind that the car’s driving range is about 220 miles.
Like the rest of the 2012 Civic line, the redesigned Civic Natural Gas doesn’t have swoopy lines, sharp creases or a dramatic profile like some small cars that revamped their looks recently. Instead, the updated styling is a natural evolution of the outgoing model, a design that received rave reviews when introduced in 2006. Consumers will recognize the Civic’s raked windshield, wedge shape, wide stance and other styling features that do not dramatically depart from the 2011 model. The only thing that distinguishes the CNG model from the standard Civic is a small chrome badge on the truck lid and a blue diamond CNG logo below, a requirement to inform emergency responders that high-pressure gas is on board.
Following the other new Civics, the interior of the Natural Gas model features a redesigned version of the previous-generation’s two-tier space ship instrument layout. The design places a digital speedometer in the top level above an analog tachometer. The upper tier is wider to fit a feature Honda calls the intelligent Multi-Information Display, or i-MID. This 5-inch screen, right of the speedometer readout, displays a wide variety of audio, trip, and fuel-economy data. A new steering wheel includes thumb controls for the multitude of audio and i-MID functions.
Borrowed from Honda’s hybrid cars is Eco Assist, an aid for more fuel-efficient driving. “Coaching bars” on either side of the speedometer turn from green to blue, signaling lead foots to drive more efficiently.
In Honda tradition, switchgear lays easy to hand and seats are supportive. However, the Civic seems to be stuck in time in terms of cabin materials. Plastics are mediocre when compared to other new compact models and the “mouse fur” ceiling fabric is actually a step backward.
Exterior dimensions are unchanged from 2011, while wheelbase – the distance between the front and rear axles and a key measurement that affects interior volume – has shrunk by 1.2 inches. Yet Honda engineers somehow expanded cabin space by almost four cubic feet. Notable differences are some three inches of front and rear shoulder room and 1.6 inches of additional rear legroom.
Standard equipment is on par with the gas-powered Civic’s mid-line LX trim level. The Natural Gas comes with: power windows, outside mirrors and locks with remote keyless entry; cruise control; air conditioning; tilt-telescoping steering column; manual height adjustable driver’s seat; and an AM/FM/CD four-speaker sound system capable of streaming music wirelessly from portable devices via Bluetooth or a wired USB connection.
Available for the first time in the Natural Gas model is a navigation system. Included is a list of CNG stations in the points-of-interest database, and saved as a favorite category. If you have a smartphone, take a pass on the $1,500 nav system and get a CNG fuel station finder app.
Honda equips every Civic with anti-lock brakes with brake-force distribution, electronic stability and traction control and a full complement of airbags, including curtain-style bags.
On The Road
The Civic Natural Gas doesn’t stray too far from its gasoline cousins. For 2012, the Civic’s ride and handling reputation of being among the very best in class continues. Tweaks to the all-independent suspension, the shorter wheelbase and a stiffer body provide a more refined ride comfort than the 2011 model while maintaining agile and responsive handling. Steering is nicely weighted and the car tracks well without a lot of input from the driver.
Around town the car has a smooth, fairly well damped ride and it’s easy-to-drive and easy-to-park. The highway ride is firm, controlled and pleasant, not harsh. Bumps and those pesky expansion joints have a negligible impact.
There is one thing that sets the Natural Gas model apart from the gasoline Civic, get-up-and-go is pokey. Natural gas has less energy density than gasoline, resulting in less power. Zero to 60 mph happens in a leisurely 10.7 seconds, more than a second longer than the standard gasoline model (four seconds slower than the Civic Si pocket rocket).
During city and suburban driving, power reduction isn’t particularly noteworthy – propelling from a stoplight, you can only go as quick as the car in front of you. However, when power is needed to merge onto a fast moving freeway, the driving can become a bit uneasy. And, when going uphill, you might as well stay in the right lane and follow the semi trucks.
As for fuel economy, I can only report what the in-car readout indicated, 30 mpg after driving 90 miles. Why such a short distance? When the car arrived at our office it had traveled 50 miles after refueling at SeaTac airport because a closer station, 16 miles away, was closed for maintenance. Not wanting to risk running out of fuel on the return to Seattle, we left a 60-mile range for the car. Honda says they will give us another car this fall and we’ll update the fuel mileage.
Where To Fill The Tank With CNG
While the numbers are slowly beginning to rise, there are just slightly more than 1,000 CNG fueling stations in the U.S. with a little over half open to the public. California leads with 155, followed by Oklahoma (62) and New York (38) South Dakota and West Virginia are the only states with no public CNG fueling stations. To locate stations in each state check out the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Data Center or the online map at MapMuse.com.
Have an interest in the Civic Natural Gas but there are no CNG fueling stations close by? That issue can be solved with a garage-installed home refueling appliance known as Phill that refuels the car overnight. Originally offered by Honda, it is now available through Impco Technologies. The home refuler costs between $3,500 and $4,000, depending on model, plus installation. Pricey, but depending on what your local utility charges for natural gas, the cost of fueling the car can be as low a $1.00 per GGE.
The 2012 Civic Natural Gas has less trunk space, less power and less driving range than the comparable gasoline powered 2012 Civic LX yet, its $26,305 price tag is $7,500 more than the LX. Furthermore, the Civic LX has an EPA fuel economy rating of 28/39/32 compared to CNG Civic’s 27/38/31. For even better mpg numbers, the 2012 Civic Hybrid delivers 44/44/44 and is priced starting at $24,200. Then, there are compact cars such as the Ford Focus, Hyundai Accent, Mazda3 and even Honda’s Civic HF that get 40 mpg on the highway and cost thousands less.
So, why would you consider purchasing a Civic Natural Gas? Well, unlike these less expensive cars, the CNG Civic doesn’t burn an ounce of petroleum, imported or otherwise. According to the EPA, there is an abundant supply of CNG and as result, nearly 90 percent of the natural gas used in the United States in 2011 was produced domestically. The balance came from Canada and Mexico. In other words, it does more to reduce our dependence on foreign energy than any hybrid, including plug-in hybrids.
If operating a car with domestically produced fuel that is less expensive and cleaner burning than gasoline is appealing to you, then the 2012 Civic Natural Gas is car you should consider. Plus, think of all of the time you will save commuting by your self in the HOV lanes, smiling as you quickly drive by hybrids with only a lone driver in the car.
Prices are manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.